Rhodopsin-encoding microorganisms are common in many environments. However, knowing that rhodopsin genes are present provides little insight into how the host cells utilize light. The genome of the freshwater actinobacterium Rhodoluna lacicola encodes a rhodopsin of the uncharacterized actinorhodopsin family. We hypothesized that actinorhodopsin was a light-activated proton pump and confirmed this by heterologously expressing R. lacicola actinorhodopsin in retinal-producing Escherichia coli. However, cultures of R. lacicola did not pump protons, even though actinorhodopsin mRNA and protein were both detected. Proton pumping in R. lacicola was induced by providing exogenous retinal, suggesting that the cells lacked the retinal cofactor. We used high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and oxidation of accessory pigments to confirm that R. lacicola does not synthesize retinal. These results suggest that in some organisms, the actinorhodopsin gene is constitutively expressed, but rhodopsin-based light capture may require cofactors obtained from the environment.
Importance: Up to 70% of microbial genomes in some environments are predicted to encode rhodopsins. Because most microbial rhodopsins are light-activated proton pumps, the prevalence of this gene suggests that in some environments, most microorganisms respond to or utilize light energy. Actinorhodopsins were discovered in an analysis of freshwater metagenomic data and subsequently identified in freshwater actinobacterial cultures. We hypothesized that actinorhodopsin from the freshwater actinobacterium Rhodoluna lacicola was a light-activated proton pump and confirmed this by expressing actinorhodopsin in retinal-producing Escherichia coli. Proton pumping in R. lacicola was induced only after both light and retinal were provided, suggesting that the cells lacked the retinal cofactor. These results indicate that photoheterotrophy in this organism and others may require cofactors obtained from the environment.
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